A Conversation with: Chris Ayers, Character Designer for Disney and Dreamworks

—Hey everyone, it’s been a while! If you’re wondering where The Conversationalist updates have been, check out my Love Talk page. I’ve been busy updating the videos for that series during the last month. But for now, on to the interview—

In every animated film, there is a mastermind behind the creation of vibrant characters, those who give them life, unique traits, and personalities. Chris Ayers is one of these people. His job is to bring characters to life and make them into beings we could see ourselves sitting down and having a conversation with. Chris is a character designer for Disney and Dreamworks. He has worked on films such as Men in Black II,  Fantastic Four, and The Penguins of Madagascar. I had the pleasure of Skyping with Chris Ayers early this year. While I would have loved to fly over to L.A. to chat with him in his studio/home, we had to temporarily settle for some screen time in lieu of an in-person chat. In spite of out strictly cyber-convo, Chris’ vibrant personality emerged as much as the personalities of the characters he illustrates.

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In the Spring of 2000, Chris packed up his belongings and drove to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of working as a character designer in the movies. This proved to be quite a difficult transition, especially after living in the midwest for his whole life. Chris attended the same school I am about to graduate from, St. Norbert College, and commented on the difficulties of leaving such a stimulating and nurturing community. In his 2014 commencement speech at SNC, he described how you enter college feeling like the smallest ant, and leave feeling like an elephant! However, that cycle continues when, once again, you feel minuscule when facing life after graduation. Chris describes his advice for facing difficult transitions:

“With time and with experience, it takes larger earthquakes to rattle you.”

Since moving across the country, his determination and tenacious mentality has helped him through much more difficult transitions. On April 1, 2005, Chris was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He says that the irony of it being on April Fool’s Day seemed fitting to him, as he has always had quite a sarcastic sense of humor. He approached the difficulties of cancer with the same mentality as he did his move across the country: he knew he had a choice. He could either let the cancer define who he was and sap his creativity, or, he could use it as an opportunity to grow in different ways. Ayers describes how cancer became “rocket fuel for the soul.”

“I’ve always been a carpe-diem type person, but after cancer that was escalated to a new level. Now it’s like, seize the moment.”

To celebrate being in remission, Chris started The Daily Zoo, a project where he illustrates a new animal every day.  He began this project on the one year anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. He decided to draw one animal daily for a year.

“I hoped this would challenge my imagination and self-discipline, but most importantly, after enduring a terrifying and arduous battle with cancer, I hoped it would provide me the focused opportunity to celebrate the gift of each healthy day by doing something I’ve always found to be rewarding: making art and nurturing my creativity.”

Chris has continued this project for the past 11 years, drawing over 4000 animals. His project has not only been personally therapeutic, but helped countless individuals going through similar struggles.

During his career, Chris has worked on some of the top films in the world. Yet even when doing so, he ran into the same issues that many creative professionals do. As his passion had become his career, Chris was faced with the inevitable threat of burning out. He discusses the techniques he employed to make sure he didn’t lose the passion for creating independently, even when it became his job.

“There are times when it’s been more challenging to be motivated to create art. Shortly after I moved to L.A. and got some opportunities working in the film industry, I was working on it and having a lot of fun, but it wasn’t as rewarding as it had been a year ago or a few years ago. The process of creating art wasn’t as fulfilling to me. And that scared me.”

Ultimately, Chris was able to restore his motivation to create by taking time for himself and saving some artwork for his personal time, not just for his job. As he says himself, this is a lesson a professional can take in any career. If you’re writer, leave some writing for your own time. If you’re a chef, leave time to cook for your own enjoyment. Maintain a piece of that for yourself so the spark for your passion is not lost in the work of everyday life.

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It was great to hear from a man who has accomplished so much not only in his professional ventures, but in his personal life. Chris’ perspective on keeping your personal passions alive and seizing opportunities as they’re presented to you was intensely motivating for me. I hope you found it just as useful! We covered more than what you saw in these three previous clips – so check out our full video conversation below!

Thank you for watching! And if you prefer to listen rather than watch, here is my podcast with Chris Ayers. It includes a bit more background information than the videos do.

Speak to you soon,

-Nora

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